It’s not often that a film trilogy can stick the landing. Indeed, when looking at film franchises where the first two instalments are overwhelming critically acclaimed and financially lucrative; the third instalment almost always has some issue that brings down the trilogy as a whole. In fact, the only trilogies I can think of that successfully pull off all three films are Toy Story and Lord of the Rings.
It’s because of this I went into War for the Planet of the Apes (WFTPOTA) with some measure of trepidation. Could director Matt Reeves do the borderline impossible and achieve a hat trick?
It has been two years since the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Caesar (Andy Serkis) has led and defended his group of apes against the unrelenting attacks by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson); a crazed solider intent of bringing down the ape menace.
After yet another attack, Caesar realises that it can continue no longer. Thus, along with his long term friends: Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary), he must journey into the lion’s den and remove the threat once and for all.
While many actors can strive for decades to find the character that history will remember them by, motion capture master, Andy Serkis, now has two that will survive the ages.
In Gollum he created a creature wracked with pain and regret, refusing steadfast to abandon his goal. And in Caesar he has done so again. A different type of pain and regret, not to mention a completely different goal; but all elevated far beyond what he originally achieved in the world of Middle-earth.
It’s almost ludicrous to think that it could be possible to emphasise with an ape far more easily than with a human. But, with Serkis’ growling voice and icy stare, we see a character that does exactly that. A leader beat down by time, with his greying hair and wrinkles indicative of a life lived, even if said life has been filled with torment and loss.
That said, his performance is not singularly achieved of course, but down to two other aspects: his fellow actors and the VFX crew.
While its easy to focus on Serkis’ performance, there’s no ignoring that his ape co-stars all rise to the occasion. From Konoval’s return as the ever faithful Maurice, to the chatty wide-eyed chimpanzee known as “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn); everyone inhabits their roles with the respect needed for such a momentous narrative.
And to call the VFX a mere triumph would be an insult to the incredible work WETA has achieved. As each film has reduced its reliance on humans, WETA has risen to the challenge, helping bring to screen a world that is almost unrivalled in its creativity
When it comes to the human characters though, there are only two that achieve any sense of note. While Amiah Miller plays the role of young Nova adequately, most attention will be placed on the detestable Colonel.
While the Colonel is not the most villainous (or even most frightening) role that Harrelson has played, there’s no mistaking his ability to successfully portray an opponent as dangerous as the previous film’s Koba. Heavily influenced by Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, Harrelson wields his fanatical military power with little thought as to the casualties, and is all the more threatening for it.
While the trailers may suggest an experience equivlent to the blockbusters of past, don’t be mistaken. This is not a summer blockbuster in the traditional sense. With echoes of Schindler’s List, the film does not shy away from the bleakness, instead showing the brutality and violence that occurs when one race believes themselves superior to another.
But it’s hard to avoid the niggling feeling that maybe the story could have been a tad more unified. While the previous film felt like a natural continuation of the first film’s story-threads, WFTPOTA feels more akin to a story aberration. Especially when the title of the film is slightly misleading as the titular war is technically not between humans and apes. (Though I suppose there may be some who choose to interpret the title metaphorically.)
That said, the final confrontation between Caesar and The Colonel is an utter triumph of storytelling. In an almost wordless scene we see the clash of two ideologies, both valid but incompatible; and in turn almost make up for the lack of story cohesion shown previously.
While it doesn’t quite reach the groundbreaking and original approach of its predecessors, WFTPOTA is a still a stunning film in its own right. It’s not everyday you can say a film trilogy has a satisfying conclusion; but in WFTPOTA we gain a story that not only has a complete journey from beginning to end, but finishes a storyline that will stand eternally in cinematic history.